In 1863 the United States was in its 87th year of independence. Abraham Lincoln was President. California had been founded 13 years earlier, the 31st state to enter the Union. San Francisco was a bustling city of some 35,000, prospering from the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. Ten years earlier, in 1853, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, OP, had been named Archbishop of the sprawling frontier Archdiocese of San Francisco,. On July 9, 1863, that Alemany dedicated Saint Mary’s College at the end of Old Mission Road in San Francisco.
Founded to educate young men at the grammar school, high school, and college levels, the college was unsuccessful in its first five years, and by 1868 its closure was being seriously considered. On August 10, 1868, eight Christian Brothers, led by Brother Justin McMahon, arrived in San Francisco after a month of travel from New York City by steamship, train, and wagon to take over management of Saint Mary’s. Their first year in California was discouraging for the pioneer Brothers: difficult financial and teaching conditions, enrollment of only thirty students, a major earthquake, and a city-wide outbreak of smallpox. Still, their tireless efforts that year tripled enrollment, which grew to 240 by 1875. The college soon became the state’s largest institution of higher learning, larger than the University of California at Berkeley, founded in 1868, and Santa Clara University, founded in 1851 by the Jesuit Fathers.
Move to Oakland, Berkeley, and Moraga
Twenty six years later, in 1889, a new facility in Oakland – “The Brickpile” – was dedicated, replacing the San Francisco campus for both the college and high school departments. Disastrous fires in 1894 and 1918 severely damaged the school and reconstruction followed in both instances.
With a growing college population, the high school’s move from the Oakland campus was imminent, resulting in the physical separation of the college and high school for the first time since 1863. The college moved to Moraga in 1928, a year after the high school’s move to its new campus at Peralta Park in Berkeley. The high school was dedicated on August 28, 1927 as Saint Mary’s College High School, retaining the word “College” to signify its historical origins. Our current campus, also known as “Peralta Park” had once been part of the inheritance of Jose Domingo Peralta from the Mexican and Spanish governments’ 48,000-acre land grant to his father in 1820 and included most of present-day Berkeley and Emeryville. A plaque at 1302 Albina Avenue describes Peralta’s 1841 adobe on the banks of Codornices Creek.
Campus Growth: 1927 – 2007
In August 1995, after 132 years as an all-male school, a 55/45 percent mix of young men and women entered the freshman class, and twenty-two sophomore girls joined ninety-eight male classmates. At commencement exercises on May 31, 1998, graduates spoke of the initial anxiety and apprehension that had given way to achievements and friendships which ultimately united them as Saint Mary’s first coed graduating class.
Saint Mary’s Today
The support of generations of parents, friends, and alumni encourage and allow us to serve the young men and women whose lives are transformed at Saint Mary’s College High School. The continued generosity of donors helps provide tuition assistance for nearly one-third of the student body of 630, affirming the belief that an investment in Saint Mary’s is an investment in the lives and futures of young men and women educated at Saint Mary’s.
Saint Mary’s spirit remains enthusiastic and youthful, more than surviving hardships, keeping up with times and trends, as true today as in the following excerpt from the Centennial year Peraltan of 1963: